Suspect in deaths of Irish soldiers appears in US court
Man linked to 1980 slayings of two Irish UN peacekeepers in deportation case
The deportation trial was adjourned when Mahmoud Bazzi’s attorney failed to turn up to court on time.
The Lebanese man suspected of involvement in the 1980 abduction and killings of two Irish UN peacekeepers and the shooting of a third has told an American immigration judge to send him back to Lebanon if the US authorities did not want to keep him in the country.
Mahmoud Bazzi (71), who has lived in the US for more than two decades, appeared in a Detroit immigration court for his first deportation hearing since his July 15th arrest by immigration officers at his home in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, Michigan.
He was arrested for “administrative immigration violations” and not directly in connection to the killings of Privates Thomas Barrett and Derek Smallhorne, the two Irish soldiers, on April 18th, 1980, according to a spokeswoman for the US immigration authorities.
A third Irish soldier, John O’Mahony, who was injured in the shootings that day, has identified Mr Bazzi as the militia man in the South Lebanese Army who abducted the three soldiers.
Mr Bazzi has denied any involvement in the abduction, shooting or killings of the Irish soldiers, despite initially confessing to his role in the incident on television in the days immediately afterwards.
The Lebanese native, who has worked driving an ice cream van in Michigan for years, appeared in court via video link from a Michigan county jail wearing an orange jumpsuit over a white t-shirt and was addressed by Judge David Paruch through an Arabic interpreter.
During a 20-minute hearing, the judge informed Mr Bazzi of the procedures to be followed by the court in the US government’s case to deport him and his rights to challenge his removal from the US.
“If you do not wish to keep me here, send me to my country Lebanon,” he told the judge through the interpreter, sitting with his fingers joined together as he leaned on a table in the county jail.
Asked whether he understood his rights and court procedures, Mr Bazzi said: “I would like to be released.”
He told the court that he was being represented by Michigan attorney K Fred Ajluni but the lawyer was not present in court. The judge decided to adjourn the case to a further hearing on August 11th to allow Mr Bazzi to have legal representation.
There was no mention of the deaths of the Irish soldiers during the hearing where the US government was represented by Frank Ledda, an attorney with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
When the judge adjourned the case and thanked Mr Bazzi for his attendance, he replied in English: “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” and saluted to the camera before being escorted away.
Mr Bazzi’s wife and daughter attended the hearing but declined to comment on his case afterwards. His attorney arrived outside the courtroom after the hearing and was approached by his daughter.
“It is over,” she told him. “They had to reschedule because you didn’t show up.” Mr Ajluni declined to comment to reporters.
Mark Langenderfer, a supervisory special agent with the Department of Homeland Security’s Homeland Security Investigations Team, also attended the brief court hearing but declined to comment, directing all media queries to a spokesman for the immigration services.
Eamon Saunders, a justice and home affairs counsellor with the Irish embassy in Washington, attended as an observer on behalf of the Government “to see what transpired in the case,” he said.
“It is something we are interested in so we will be paying attention to it,” he told reporters afterwards.
Mr Bazzi is alleged to have abducted the Irish soldiers as they travelled in a convoy to deliver supplies in south Lebanon in April 1980 in revenge for his brother’s killing 12 days earlier in a clash between the South Lebanese Army and peacekeepers from Ireland and the Netherlands. An Irish soldier died from injuries sustained in that incident.
In a recent interview with the Detroit Free Press, Mr Bazzi denied killing Privates Barrett and Smallhorne and said that he falsely confessed to the slayings because he feared a Lebanese militia would kill him unless he lied about being involved.
Minister for Defence Simon Coveney welcomed his arrest earlier this month and said that Ireland had continually pursued the case with the US and Lebanese authorities over the years.
The Minister’s spokesman has said that the question of where and whether Mr Bazzi would be deported was for the US authorities to decide but noted that Lebanon is the country with primary jurisdiction in the case.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny raised the case with the Lebanese authorities when he visited Irish soldiers serving as UN peacekeepers in June.